Parenting, Equity and Higher Education

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

Students with caring/ parenting responsibilities is a sub-set of the broader literature on mature-age students and how gender impacts on students’ access and engagement with higher education studies. There are myriad challenges that student-parents face with regard to their studies, largely thematised in the literature in terms of time, balance, and care, all of which are underpinned by a common finding that universities are considered inflexible, unresponsive (Bowl, 2001; Alsop, Gonzalez-Arnal & Kilkey, 2008; Marandet & Wainwright, 2010; Brooks, 2012) and “care-blind” (Moreau, 2016). Moreover, because parent status is not routinely collected by institutions, Moreau (2016) argues that it is often disclosed at point of crisis, resulting in the tacit ascription of the label of ‘problem student’.

With regard to the temporal pressures on student-parents/carers (SPCs), there is a common finding in the literature that these students have limited flexibility and therefore need to know timetables well in advance to organise care schedules around formal academic activities over other activities (Alsop, Gonzalez-Arnal & Kilkey, 2008; Marandet & Wainwright, 2010; Moreau & Kerner, 2015). Moreau and Kerner (2015) describe SPCs as ‘time poor’ as a result of having to undertake the juggling act of balancing home, studies and other responsibilities, often in the context of ‘family unfriendly’ institutional practices, such as giving timetables very late. The gendered nature of caring, particularly for children, creates significant challenges for mothers in particular, with the student-parents in Alsop, Gonzalez-Arnal and Kilkey’s (2008) study describing having to do a ‘second shift’ at home; similarly, Moreau and Kerner (2015) describe how the seemingly “bottomless” workbalancing studies with domestic work/ care at home results in a concerning lack of ‘me time’ (p.220), which has the potential to lead to exhaustion or burnout (and consequently increases the likelihood of attrition)

For many student-parents, the absence of flexible childcare arrangements or childcare options on campus is a significant hurdle (Bowl, 2001; Moreau & Kerner, 2015) — as it also is for academic-parents (Acker & Amenti, 2004). In their study with 71 SPCs, Marandet and Wainwright found that a lack of suitable childcare (none on campus) was reported as issue for 28.2%, particularly for women, and their participants noted how inflexible childcare arrangements create conflicts with changing timetables, resulting in having to pay for childcare they didn’t need. The financial demands of childcare create additional financial pressures for student-parents. Relatedly, the imposition of tuition fees creates (perceived) financial barriers; in Cooper’s (2013) study of the experiences of accessing higher education through the lens of the mother-daughter relationship and intergenerational perspectives suggests class/SES-based differences in student-mothers’ understandings of the financial implications of university study. Cooper writes that her findings suggest “that if middle-class families have concerns, [it thus likely that] the repayment of tuition fees will prohibit working class families from accessing HE, who by default are on a lower income” (p.637).

Moreover, the literature speaks to the emotional/ mental health implications of returning to education for SPCs, particularly with regard to feelings of guilt (Wainwright & Marandet, 2010; Moreau & Kerner, 2015; O’Shea, 2015; Greenberg & Shenaar-Golan, 2017). In her study, O’Shea (2015) offers collective vignettes of SPCs that illustrate the non-normative transitions that student-parents make into higher education. She writes that there “is a sense of fragility in some of these women’s stories, the decision to come to university has had deeply felt repercussions” (p.251) — fear of judgement from others, fear of losing support. Some students described keeping their studies a secret, while others described having to ‘prove themselves fit’ to balance study and work/parent. Overall, O’Shea (2015) argues that gender roles are significant in terms of SPCs’ experiences of higher education, with the mother-role in particularly leading to feelings of guilt about not doing their best for their children/ families, their studies and (domestic and/or paid) work.

Similar to the literature on mature-age students, the literature on SPCs also offers insights into the motivations of these students to re-enter education. Pio and Graham’s (2016) study of teenage mums in New Zealand suggests that wanting to avoid the stigma of teenage motherhood was a common driver for their participants, as well as viewing education as a way to provide more for their children/ create better prospects for both mother and child/ren, which is a finding shared in other literature (Marandet & Wainwright, 2010;
O’Shea, 2015;
Greenberg & Shenaar-Golan, 2017). This connects with some of the guilt described in the literature; as Moreau and Kerner (2015) write, “Being a student is then articulated as a way of being a ‘better’ parent in the longer term, even though it implies compromising the ideal of the ‘good’ mother in the shorter term” (p.228). Other motivations are largely related to future employment and earning potential; in their survey of 71 SPCs, Marandet and Wainwright (2010) found that 61.5% of their student-participants wanted to train for a specific career and 53.8% said they wanted a qualification.  Although there were no significant differences between fathers and mothers in the cohort, more women described their decision to go to university as a response to change in personal circumstances (e.g. divorce, child going to school) than the male participants.

There is a strong line of critique in the literature, relating largely to a perceived hostile environment for SPCs. A common concern is that of the ‘othering’ that SPCs experience, often in comparison to institutions’ dominant characterisation of (‘traditional’) students as carefree, young and careless (Moreau, 2016). In her study of the daughters of single parents,

Gagnon (2018) notes how “Their university experiences are often marked by many reminders, both subtle and overt, of the ways they do not fit within the ‘ideal’ student norm, of the ways that they are misrecognised and made to feel like they are not legitimate” (p.573). For the pre-service teachers in Murtagh’s (2019) UK study, the sense of being othered was persistent, despite the studying in a program that had been designed to accommodate ‘non-traditional’ students. This othering happened across five domains: three at university (institutional othering, program othering, peer othering) and two in their personal lives (family othering, friendship othering). To mitigate the impacts of such layered othering, Murtagh argues that universities need to do more to develop family-friendly courses and policies, particularly with regard to teacher training placements: “in allowing for flexibility, trainees may feel more able to balance home life and studying and may resume more typical relationships with friends and family members as pressures are alleviated. In addition, evidence from the study would suggest that parent-trainees, and their partners would benefit from access to additional services to support success in other personal aspects of their lives” (p.798). Similarly, Moreau and Kerner (2015) succinctly articulate, “[institutional e]xpectations in terms of mobility and availability risk conflicting with parental commitments” (p.220), with universities often unable or unwilling to offer the kind of flexibility that SPCs require.

From a comparative perspective, Brooks (2012) argues that there are clear differences in how student-parents are supported (or not) between a liberal welfare system (UK) and social democratic (Denmark). While the two universities in her study (older and newer) in Denmark treated student-parents relatively similarly, there was significant diversity in how UK universities supported and viewed student-parents, which Brooks argues is reflective of the market-oriented neoliberal higher education system. Moreau’s (2016) analysis of the policy context and systems of ten English universities supports Brooks’ argument, finding three dominant institutional approaches. Most common is the ‘universal/ ‘careblind’ approach, with only two of the surveyed universities offering a policy or provision for student-parents. The second approach is described by Moreau as ‘targeted’, with five of universities having ‘some specific provision’, mostly in the context of nursery and/or financial support. Only three of the universities had a ‘mainstreaming’ approach, which included extensive reference to student parents (childcare, children allowed on campus, spaces for student parents. Ultimately, the prevalence of the ‘care-blind’ approach is to the detriment of universities, particularly in the context of widening participation. Wainwright and Marandet (2010, p.463) made this point a decade ago, arguing:

Indeed, the need to mainstream awareness of this group of students and the issues they face across all university schools and services is highly necessary if the government’s lifelong learning and widening participation ambitions are to be fulfilled and the social mobility potential of university learning achieved.

There is also a clear line of inquiry in the literature with regard to academic-parents (APs). Similar themes emerge in this literature, particularly with regard to the significance of gender and assumptions about being ‘care-free’ and mobile. Lynch (2010) describes this as the doxas of academy, based on the assumption that people have time and space to think and write, and time to travel and present. Such assumptions lead to inequity and highlight the lack of gender parity in higher education; as Henderson and Moreau (2019) succinctly note, “Where there is a mobility imperative, there is also mobility inequality” (p.3). The burden of combing parenthood and academic work is not exclusively a female concern, but like the literature on student-parents, there is a strong line that points to the increased burden placed on women. Although most of the female participants in Acker and Armenti’s (2004) study reporting non-traditional family/ home circumstances (i.e. they didn’t follow traditional gender roles at home), the authors note that still “most of the women had some concerns related to having or caring for children and these needed to be understood within university structures that institutionalized career paths that did not take much account of family dilemmas” (p.9). The careless structures of higher education resulted in these women planning their careers around their parenting responsibilities, even for academics who were yet to have children. Acker and Armenti (2004) describe how their younger participants were more actively tussling with questions about when to have children, and wondering about how parenthood would ‘fit’ into their careers. For the parents in their study, there was common concern about struggling to plan their work around children, with accessing childcare difficult, particularly for single parents. Most participants described stress, tiredness and challenges with sleeping. Similar again to the student literature, these authors highlight the temporal dimensions (‘clashing clocks’, p.11), but also note that a challenge is the suppression of sharing of concerns/ challenges by parents, leading to the authors describing these issues as taboo (p.11).

Amsler and Motta (2019) report similar themes in their auto-methodological account of parenting in academia. They note how the neoliberal shape of higher education evokes the ‘madness of splitting’ between different rhythms, spaces and modalities, which are particularly acute for single parents. More often than not, being a parent and working as an academic requires an unhealthy level of self-sacrifice which “negate the needs of self-care and care for others”; as such, these authors argue this “can expose the invisible and unmentionable conditions that make ideal-type forms of neoliberal academic labour possible” (p.93). Similar to Barnett (2011), Amsler and Motta (2019) remind us that viewing higher education through an emotional/ affective lens helps to challenge the reductive efficiencies of neoliberalism. However, recognising these sharply conflicting subjectivities and rationalities is one thing but speaking out against it comes with risks: “Embracing the otherness and marginality of the messiness that motherhood brings to the marketised university takes courage, for it involves emotional risk and exposure to uncertainty” (p.93).   In a more positive appraisal, Pillay (2009) argues that “the unity of thinking and loving is the challenge that the academic mother has to meet” (p.505), involving mother-scholars “tak[ing] an intellectual leap forward…For the academic mother it means stepping out of a choreographed waltz into a vivacious salsa.” (p.513).

Ultimately, the inflexible and care-blindness of institutions is a cultural pillar of the academy. Lynch’s (2010) analysis of the conditions of care in the academy point to how senior levels of higher education have a ‘care ceiling’, where people without visible care duties are implicitly expected to have ‘total time for the organisation’. This provides models for newcomers who are being inculcated into academy (such as postgraduates students). Lynch (2010) writes that “[w]omen and men who cannot work unpaid hours are likely to be severely disadvantaged within the academy” (p.58). Parenting requires considerable time, energy and attention. The clear message from the literature is critique of the idea that “to be a successful academic is to be unencumbered by caring” (Lynch, 2010, p.63).

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.